Dave's Top 9 Books From Season Four of the Strong Sense of Place Podcast

Dave's Top 9 Books From Season Four of the Strong Sense of Place Podcast

Tuesday, 13 December, 2022

I love a book that tells me something I don’t know, something I haven’t heard before, something true.

That could be a nonfiction book that describes a place that is new to me or a book that offers a different spin on an old topic. Or it could be fiction that lets me spend a few hours with characters that I have never had the opportunity to meet. Give this old brain a new window to look out of, and I’ll follow you around for hours.

Conversely, I also love a book that spins an outrageous lie — a story so big it barely fits in the covers.

Sometimes, they’re the same book. (I’m looking at you, Galore.)

Here are my favorite books from Season 4. — Dave


How to Enjoy Art: A Guide for Everyone - Ben Street

How to Enjoy Art
> Ben Street

I love it because… it reminded me of how delightful and playful art can be. But, more importantly, it gave me some tools to approach work that is new to me.

Hear me talk about it: Museums: A Gathering of Muses, A Clutch of Curators

In this lively, entertaining book, art historian Ben Street invites you to come with him to look at art. He arms you with ideas to help you understand and enjoy the works — no background in art production or history required.

When you hear a song on the radio, it either moves you or it doesn’t, but you probably don’t think, ‘If I knew more music theory, maybe that song would be better for me.’ Street argues your relationship with a piece of art and how it hits you, should be the same.

To show how that can be done, this breezy book is divided into chapters on color, scale, process, placement, and content. At each step, he writes about what those things can mean with plenty of examples to interrogate your feelings: How does it affect you that this portrait is tiny and part of a brooch? What does it mean that the Statue of Liberty is enormous, and how different it would be if it could sit comfortably on a table? What does it say about the work when it’s put in a museum? How would it be different if it was sitting in a Renaissance-era church?

This tidy volume is a delight. Fair warning: You will be eager to visit a museum as soon as possible. To look at art. To ask questions. To think about the artist. To find the works that hit you like your favorite song. {more}

You’re standing in a fairly crowded museum, looking at a work of art you’ve never seen before. It could be anything: a fragment of ancient pottery; a video projection composed of footage found on the internet; a still-life painting of rotting fruit; a porcelain sculpture of a flirtatious couple; a quilt stitched with an abstract pattern; a photograph of a baby’s foot. Any one of these objects might form the center of a lifetime’s worth of research and analysis. Equally, any one of them might be glanced at for a couple of seconds, passed by and instantly forgotten. These two extreme possibilities reflect the simple choice anyone has when encountering a work of art. In any art experience, you have a decision to make: Should you stay or should you go? The only decision that really matters is that one. Either give your time to the experience, or move along; there is no middle ground. Not that it’s an easy decision to make. — Ben Street


A Little History of Art - Charlotte Mullins

A Little History of Art
> Charlotte Mullins

I love it because… it brought stories of many fascinating artists creating art in their time and place.

Hear me talk about it: Museums: A Gathering of Muses, A Clutch of Curators

Buckle up, buttercup. You’re about to take a romp through about 100,000 years of art, and it’s a thrilling ride. You’ll travel the world — Peru, Australia, the Niger Valley, and beyond — and meet well-known artists like Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo, along with forgotten creators with comparable impact.

Your guide through this visual world is Charlotte Mullins, art critic, writer, and broadcaster. She’s very good at translating all of her knowledge into engaging prose for a general audience in a voice that’s simultaneously authoritative and warm. Imagine the engaging, unconventional history teacher you wish you’d had, and you’ll come close. She makes art and history exciting, accessible, and — most effectively — relevant to life right now.

The story of art unfolds through forty short chapters, each beginning with a vignette of what was happening in the world at the time. Context is everything, and Mullins vividly describes artists making art in their time. This supports two crucial ideas: artists are making art everywhere (right now!), and art is about people. Sure, it’s maybe made from paint or paper, stone or wood, etched into a wall or splashed onto a canvas, but really, it’s about people: sorrow, joy, family, foes, events of the day. {more}

The end of life at Bonampak must have been swift. The paintings are dated 791 CE but a quarter of the hieroglyphs remain unfinished, suggesting work suddenly halted. It seems as if the next war didn’t go their way and the site was abandoned, covered by rainforest for over one thousand years until it was rediscovered in 1946. — Charlotte Mullins


My Name is Red - Orhan Pamuk

My Name Is Red
> Orhan Pamuk

I love it because… it is a profoundly evocative book that took me to Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. It was illuminating, but I still need a vacation from that trip.

Hear me talk about it: Turkey: It’s Turkish Delight on a Moonlit Night

It is only kind of accurate to describe this stunning novel as a ‘murder mystery set in Istanbul in the 1590s,’ but that’s the easiest way to jump into this lovely literary fray.

There is a dead man. And he’s been murdered. In fact, he introduces himself in a spectacular piece of writing that opens the book.

There’s also a hero; his name is Black. He’s returned to Istanbul from travels abroad, just in time to figure out who killed one of his mentors.

There are complications, rich relationships, clues, and many motives. The mystery is a bit noir-ish — Black might be the last good man in a tough town.

But, like other rich, read-it-multiple-times literature, the murder mystery is here mainly to talk about other things, like art and religion, love and violence.

Though the book has a solid narrative structure — there is a traditional arc — it plays fast and loose with our notions of character. Each chapter of the story is told by a different narrator, and not all of them are human. So we hear from an illustration of a dog, and Death takes a turn. We hear from Black and, as the title suggests, the dead Red.

The reason for all these characters and their perspectives? The Sultan has secretly commissioned a great book to be created in his honor, to celebrate his life and empire. It will be illustrated by the finest artists in the new, modern style. That last bit, the embrace of the new, raises all manner of questions about the meaning of art and artists.

This story weaves fantasy, philosophical musing, and a compelling mystery to transport you to the 16th-century Ottoman Empire. {more}

Behold! I am a twenty-two-carat Ottoman Sultani gold coin and I bear the glorious insignia of His Excellency Our Sultan, Refuge of the World. Here, in the middle of the night in this fine coffeehouse overcome with funereal melancholy, Stork, one of Our Sultan’s great masters, has just finished drawing my picture, though he hasn’t yet been able to embellish me with gold wash — I’ll leave that to your imagination. My image is here before you, yet I myself can be found in the money purse of your dear brother, Stork, that illustrious miniaturist. He’s rising now, removing me from his purse and showing me off to each of you. Hello, hello, greetings to all the master artists and assorted guests. Your eyes widen as you behold my glimmer, you thrill as I shimmer in the light of the oil lamp, and finally, you bristle with envy at my owner, Master Stork. You’re justified in behaving so, for there’s no better measure of an illustrator’s talent than I. — Orhan Pamuk


Galore - Michael Crummey

> Michael Crummey

I love it because… this book smells like the sea salt and the pine trees of the Pacific Canadian shore. There are characters in this story that I miss.

Hear me talk about it: Atlantic Canada: For There Blow Some Cold Nor’westers on the Banks of Newfoundland

This multi-generational family epic spans life in Newfoundland from the 1700s to the early 1900s, spinning a yarn that combines elements of fantasy, folk tales, and literary realism.

The story begins in glorious folk-tale fashion when a man is found alive inside a whale. There is also a woman who’s probably a witch — known only as Devine’s Widow — and a ghost haunting the proceedings.

As you might expect, the mute albino man who emerges from the belly of the whale on the beach has a lasting impact on the community. And as we move through time — and a few hundred pages of the story — with these characters, we’ve traversed four generations and emerged in the time of hospitals, mass transit, and world war.

The different eras in this book have different voices, although they roll out gradually, like the tide, and some elements remain consistent throughout. A road named in the first chapter plays a significant role in the last. The book starts and ends on the same holiday. But the magic and superstition ebb as science and industry flow.

This beautifully told tale is mostly about the making and meaning of a family — how hard that process can be, both then and now. It’s also about living in the then and the now; the ways they’re similar and different, and how we swirl in the same moments, time after time, through the centuries. {more}

King-me pushed his way past the laughter of the bystanders, saying he’d have nothing more to do with the devilment. But no one followed after him. They stood awhile discussing the strange event, a fisherman washed overboard in a storm or a suicide made strange by too many months at sea, idle speculation that didn’t begin to address the man’s appearance or his grave in the whale’s belly. They came finally to the consensus that life was a mystery and a wonder beyond human understanding, a conclusion they were comfortable with though there was little comfort in the thought. The unfortunate soul was owed a Christian burial and there was the rest of the day’s work to get on with. — Michael Crummey


The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float - Farley Mowat

I love it because… Farley Mowat is precisely who you want on board your leaky, stubborn boat as you navigate the shores of Newfoundland.

Hear me talk about it: Atlantic Canada: For There Blow Some Cold Nor’westers on the Banks of Newfoundland

Farley Mowat is a legendary Canadian author, environmentalist, and adventurer. This is the tale of that time he bought a two-masted schooner named The Happy Adventure and sailed Canada’s Atlantic coast. As expected, hijinks ensue.

Mowat is the beloved author of more than 40 books, and in this one, he pulls off a masterful trick. The trip he describes in these pages is an awful one — everything goes wrong. He’s persuaded to buy a lousy boat; it’s poorly made, poorly kept, and full of leaks. It smells. He and his partner almost sink it a few times, and though their original dream was to sail to South America, they never get further than New Brunswick. And that takes them a few years and multiple tries.

One could interpret the book this way: Mowat and his buddy — both of them frequently tipsy and shockingly ignorant of the danger they’re in — might be the villains in this story. Over and over again, good-natured Newfoundlanders, from port to port, save these men from themselves.

Through all the ill-considered decisions and interactions with a truly cantankerous boat, you will enjoy every moment of this vicarious trip along the Atlantic provinces of Canada. {more}

How to buy: You can order the paperback version of this book online, directly from David R. Godine Publisher. You can also read it for free in the Internet Archive.

[T]he three cardinal tenets of rum drinking in Newfoundland: The first of these is that as soon as a bottle is placed on a table it must be opened. This is done to ‘let the air get at it and carry off the black vapors.’ The second tenet is that a bottle, once opened, must never be restoppered, because of the belief that it will then go bad. No bottle of rum has ever gone bad in Newfoundland, but none has ever been restoppered, so there is no way of knowing whether this belief is reasonable. The final tenet is that an open bottle must be drunk as rapidly as possible ‘before all to-good goes out of it.’ — Farley Mowat


Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet - Will Hunt

> Will Hunt

I love it because… this book took me places I didn’t even know I wanted to go and introduced me to ideas I won’t forget. (You can traverse Paris underground in four days. Maybe we have cave art because the artists hoped we would see it. Life is everywhere.)

Hear me talk about it: Secret Passages: Down the Rabbit Hole

This collection of essays about the world beneath our feet is nonfiction fireworks, packed with one remarkable revelation after another. With infectious enthusiasm and a voice that deftly juggles science and wonder, author Will Hunt will take you underground into sacred caves, derelict subway stations, nuclear bunkers, and ancient underground cities.

The book opens with his origin story, an anecdote that shows how he became so attuned to what mysterious underground spaces mean to us, physically and emotionally.

As a kid in Providence, Rhode Island, Hunt learned from a teacher about an abandoned underground tunnel nearby. He went looking for that tunnel and just never stopped. In subsequent chapters, he shares the story of a group that traversed Paris entirely underground. He explores how some cultures deify the spaces underground; in the Bolivian Andes, we learn about what the locals call ‘the mountain that eats men.’ He examines the significance of 14,000-year-old cave drawings and tells a story that proves Pythagoras was more than his geometry theorem.

If you’re not intrigued and entertained by a book that’s filled with fantastic photos and celebrates illegal parties in Paris and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, perhaps you need to reexamine your priorities. {more}

The doors on the underworld kingdom blew open in 1994, when a young biologist from New Mexico named Penny Boston climbed down to the very bottom of Lechuguilla Cave, two thousand feet underground. It was an environment, she said, ‘as close as you can get to traveling to another planet without actually leaving earth’ — far too remote to support even the hardiest troglobite, or any other living creature. But at one point, Boston was scrutinizing a furry, brown geological growth on the ceiling of a cave passage, when a drip of water plopped directly into her eye. Boston was amazed to find that her eye puffed up and swelled shut. It could only have meant one thing: she had been infected by bacteria, by tiny microorganisms living in the cave’s depths, far deeper underground than anyone imagined possible. — Will Hunt


Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere - Jan Morris

I love it because… sometimes the best character in the book is the author. Visiting Italy with Jan Morris for 200 pages made me want to know more about her and her vibrant life.

Hear me talk about it: Italy: A Bottle of Red, the Tuscan Sun, and Il Dolce Far Niente

During the 94 years that British writer Jan Morris walked this Earth, she led a remarkable life. This moving portrait of a city is just one of her 40 books in which she explored the intimacies of place and how they shape us as humans.

Most people might not think to visit Trieste, a small city on the northeastern side of Italy. Walking distance from Slovenia and tucked into the far corner of the Adriatic, it’s not even part of Italy’s boot, for heaven’s sake. Though it once rivaled Hong Kong as a port city, it doesn’t have the romance of Venice, the history of Rome, or the art of Florence. It’s barely even Italian — the Austrians held Trieste for far longer.

There are parts of this book that feel as if the author Jan Morris is actively trying to talk you out of visiting. She shares her remarkably complex history with Trieste, having visited as a young man in the 1960s and later in her life, after gender reassignment surgery, as a mature woman.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this relationship with the city, she loved it. In her carefully rendered, if a bit dense, prose, she vividly describes being homesick for this place that was not her home and conveys a deep nostalgia for a time she did not see.

Throughout, she writes with intelligence, passion, and clarity, able to put on the page precisely what she found remarkable and how it made her feel. {more}

I write of exiles in Trieste, but I have generally felt myself an exile, too. For years I felt myself an exile from normality, and now I feel myself one of those exiles from time. The past is a foreign country, but so is old age, and as you enter it you feel you are treading unknown territory, leaving your own land behind. You’ve never been here before. The clothes people wear, the idioms they use, their pronunciation, their assumptions, tastes, humours, loyalties all become the more alien the older you get. The countryside changes. The policemen are children. Even hypochondria, the Trieste disease, is not what it was, for that interesting pain in the ear-lobe may not now be imaginary at all, but some obscure senile reality. This kind of exile can mean a new freedom, too, because most things don’t matter as they used to. They way I look doesn’t matter. The opinions I cherish are my business. The books I have written are no more than smudged graffiti on a wall, and I shall write no more of them. Money? Enough to live on. Critics? To hell with ‘em. Kindness is what matters, all along, at any age — kindness, the ruling principle of nowhere! — Jan Morris


Born a Crime - Trevor Noah

Born A Crime
> Trevor Noah

I love it because… sometimes the best character in the book is the author’s mother. Trevor Noah is a great storyteller, but his mom is the star in that house.

Hear me talk about it: South Africa: Nelson Mandela, the Big Five, and Sweet Melktert

Forget everything you know about celebrity memoirs. Yes, this book from the host of The Daily Show is supremely charming and entertaining. But Trevor Noah subverts expectations, mostly circumventing his rise in Hollywood to tell the story of growing up a mixed-race child in just-post-Apartheid South Africa.

Noah’s father was white and Swiss-German; his mother was Black and Xhosa. When he entered the world, interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa. That use of ‘crime’ in the title? Not hyperbole. Through refreshingly honest, often funny, sometimes heartbreaking stories, we meet Trevor the Troublemaker, Trevor the son, and ultimately, the man he became.

Without a doubt, you will understand the horrors of living in a segregated country. Noah’s mixed race meant he wasn’t really welcome anywhere. He makes a strong case that Apartheid was very good at getting people to hate people who weren’t like them — even if they were just a little not like them.

No spoilers, but the book’s last chapter is worth the admission price. It’s a good story, well-told, with a lot of feelings.

Heads-up! Trevor Noah narrates the audiobook version, and — no surprise — it’s fantastic. He honed his storytelling skills as a stand-up comic, and hearing his life unfold in his voice is a powerful experience. {more}

The legal definition of a white person under Apartheid was ‘one who in appearance is obviously a white person who is generally not accepted as a coloured person; or is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously a white person.’ It was completely arbitrary, in other words. That’s where the government came up with things like the pencil test. If you were applying to be white, the pencil went into your hair. If it fell out, you were white. If it stayed in, you were colored. You were what the government said you were. Sometimes that came down to a lone clerk eyeballing your face and making a snap decision. Depending on how high your cheekbones were or how broad your nose was, he could tick whatever box made sense to him, thereby deciding where you could live, whom you could marry, what jobs and rights and privileges you were allowed. — Trevor Noah


Why Buddhism is True - Robert Wright

Why Buddhism is True
> Robert Wright

I love it because… I found Why Buddhism is True helpful to my mental well-being. So the real question is: why am I not rereading it right now?

Hear me talk about it: Thailand: Come for the Food, Stay for the Spiritual Enlightenment

In this insightful book, journalist Robert Wright explores the basic ideas of Buddhism and shows they not only hold up against modern science but are confirmed by it. In his hands, this information manages to be both illuminating and inspiring.

Lest you worry this might all be too groovy for you, embrace this: The author is a science writer. He’s curious, he writes well, and he wants you to understand what he’s saying — but there’s no agenda here. He doesn’t even claim to be a Buddhist, although he practices Buddhist meditation.

Instead, he grabs hold of somewhat transcendent ideas — something you might hear in a yoga class — and then examines those ideas through the lens of evolutionary biology and psychology. His premise is that the early Buddhists had a solid read on the human condition and what to do about it — and science pretty much backs them up.

Ultimately, this book lands in a good place: a place of gratitude and empathy and togetherness and hope. What could be more rational than that? {more}

These feelings — anxiety, despair, hatred, greed — have elements of delusion, elements you’d be better off without. And if you think you would be better off, imagine how the whole world would be. After all, feelings like despair and hatred and greed can foster wars and atrocities. So if what I’m saying is true — if the basic sources of human suffering and human cruelty are indeed in large part the product of delusion — there is value in exposing this delusion to the light. — Robert Wright

Top image courtesy of sippakorn yamkasikorn/Unsplash.

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